Fraud leads Beijing to license “living Buddhas”

Tulkus, custodians of the spirit of the great lamas of the past, are legion. To prevent fraud against believers, China’s Communist authorities have created an online database to authenticate them. However, its list leaves out those studied abroad. Above all, the measure seeks to justify Beijing’s claim that it can recognise future Tibetan leaders, including the Dalai Lama and his closest advisers.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – With great fanfare in the national press, China’s Communist government has set up an online database to “verify” living Tibetan Buddhas.

The online service, which will be run by the government of the Chinese-controlled Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in cooperation with the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), will be available only in Tibetan for now. A Chinese language version is expected soon.

Although praised by members of the government-controlled Buddhist Association of China, the measure is another step towards the total control of the Tibet’s monastic tradition.

On paper, the goal is to protect religious believers. "Living buddhas" are also known as "Tulkus," religious who chose the monastic life and are honoured by the abbots of various Buddhist temples with the title "Rinpoche" ("Precious").

According to the definition of the Dalai Lama, the Tulkus are those who chose to awaken intentionally in Samsara, to benefit and provide assistance to all sentient beings, along the path to the awakening of his conscience and enlightenment.

In China today some 10,000 people have this title. Many of them, however, are fraudsters. Because Tulkus are honoured members of society, they are often called to bless new homes, business deals, new-born babies or the dearly departed . . . for a fee.

A few years ago, one case made the front-pages. A man who posed as a Tulku was paid thousands of yuan to bless a supermarket. When he was betrayed by his religious ignorance, he was denounced and arrested.

For Drukhang Thubten Khedrup, who is the vice president of China’s Buddhist Association, president of the Tibetan Branch of China’s Buddhist Association and 7th Rukhang Rinpoche, the online query system is an important step for China’s Buddhist Association to promote religious education and further standardise matters related to reincarnation of Rinpoches.

The reason for this is hat in recent years some fraudsters have posed as Rinpoches in Tibet and inland China, harming the interests of believers and ruining the reputation of Tibetan Buddhism.

Now people can check up on Tulkus via their mobile phone. Once they log in via text message verification, they can search by entering name, Buddhist name, ID number, Buddha permit number or temple.

Tulku information comes from various monasteries around the country. The database lists 870 government-certified reincarnations but it will take months before the database is complete.

However, an editorial in the Tibetan Phayul noted that despite the apparent good faith, the system is flawed because it excludes those who have been recognised abroad or in Dharamsala.* It also say nothing about older monks whose monasteries were destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

For Tibetan rights groups, it is obvious that the Party wants to control the rebirths of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, a goal it has never tried to hide.

Normally, Tulkus are defined by a complicated hierarchy divided in various positions like those of the Dalai, the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa. Unlike the "living Buddha", the former are recognised immediately after birth through complex rituals.

Some years ago, Beijing seized the real Panchen Lama, who had been recognised by the exiled Dalai, and replaced him with someone who is viewed as a puppet by most Tibetan Buddhists.

Chinese authorities have also tried to get another Karmapa recognised in lieu of the real one, who fled China in the early 2000s to join the supreme Buddhist leader.

According to London-based Free Tibet, this “development is completely consistent with Beijing’s current strategy of using ‘protection’ of Tibetan Buddhism as a cloak for more intensive and more intrusive control of religious life and institutions.”

* Dharamsala is located in India. The Tibetan government in exile is located there and is the home in exile of the Dalai Lama.